Your Body: The Joint Stack

Did you know that your body is just a joint stack? (One joint stacked on top of another, and this is the idea you need to adopt when thinking about your body)…What I want to convey with this is that EVERY JOINT IS CONNECTED! Your body is a complete package, and yes, what is bothering you at the ankle may infact be driving the pain in your shoulder. Let me explain…

Here is a picture of the major joints in your body that are used in movement – you will often hear me refer to this as the kinetic chain.

For the purpose of this blog, we will leave out the scapula (shoulder blades).

These joints in our body need to be characterized as predominantly mobile or stabile for good exercisin’. What is really interesting is the fact that the joints alternate as we go up the body.

Take a look at this and each joint’s primary training needs:

Ankle = mobility

Think about how much you can move your ankle. Yes, you need a lot of mobility at your ankle for running, jumping, walking, swimming, dancing…. And an ankle lacking mobility will cause the body to compensate with movement at other joints up the kinetic chain (like your knee). And now, your knee will possibly start to ache because it started to make up for the lack of mobility in the ankle because…

Knee = stability

Yes, the knee does have mobility as well, but what is most important is that it is trained to be stable. And nature did definitely intend it this way as you have a few major ligaments around your knee joint ensuring this.

Hip = mobility

The hip, oh the hip, many people I meet in my daily training travels are lacking mobility at the hip. The hip is where the biggest muscles in your body connect, so if we have our biggest muscles not moving in a sufficient range of motion, the ripple affect is going to be felt.

Lower back = stability

There are approx 2-3 degrees of rotation in the vertebrae of our lower back. Not being fused vertebrae, nature did imply there should be some movement. What typically is a trigger for back pain, is tight hips anteriorly tilting the pelvis forward causing strain and excess movement at the lower back (tight hip flexors!). Most back problems can be solved by looking at the hips and adding some functional strength to the abdomen – like the plank.

Upper back = mobility

For the love of god, give us more mobility here! Poor upper back mobility is a contributing factor to shoulder pain. A tight thoracic spine often is combined with a tight chest, tight lats, and even shoulder pain. We have 7-9 degrees of rotation in our upper spine, so rotational movements in the upper back are a good idea for warmups. (And so is no slouching at the computer!) Being on the computer a lot, I know how important it is to stop this!

Shoulder = mobility/stability

We ask the shoulder to do a lot. This mobility joint needs stability or it would be hanging off our bodies.

When we examine this alternating pattern of mobility/stability, what we commonly see is that if there is mobility lacking at the hip or ankle, then you may start seeing some knee pain. The knee is meant to be stable, and when it starts to develop motor patterns to compensate for limited range of motion in other joints you are asking for trouble. When the knee is tracking like this, you start to get nagging knee pains when running or even worse. (There is a reason why I stare at your knees to make sure they are tracking correctly when you are doing squats.)

Cue the stare!

Hips, being the centerpiece of the body, require a lot of mobility, if not, now your lower back with just 2-3 degrees of rotation at each segment will begin compensating and that equals lower back strain and maybe pain.

You see, when a joint is messed up, a quality chiropractor or physiotherapist should look up and down the kinetic chain (barring any structural deficiencies or traumas to the site) for the cause.

Example #1 – when your lower back is aching it can most be readily attributed to lack of mobility at the upper back and hips as the lower back is now compensating for those joints and moving more than it should. So if you have an issue, think about flanking it from the joint above and below!

Example #2– here within example #2, is from my personal experience. I used to wear an ankle brace while running bootcamps (some of you veterans may have noticed)… Now a braced foot, cannot be as mobile as it should and because of this I began to suffer from….knee pain.  (I traded stability for mobility at the ankle to protect it from further injury).

And since I am on the topic of knees, here are some tips to prevent knee injuries:

1. Exercise without shoes on if you can! Yes, it is risky, especially in a gym setting with weights being dropped on the floor. So, I advise you to do at your own risk. (If you work out at a gym, they may not even let you). And ummm, don’t run without shoes unless you are a seasoned veteran of barefoot training.

2. Softer is better! When referring to an ankle brace, sacrifice the stability and protect the knee. The ASO lace up brace has got me through 2 ankle injuries now.

3. Think Joint Stack and train the joints according to their mobility and stability demands. Knees are trained for stability while flexibility is huge for the hip and the ankles.

4. Technique = Practice. Take your time and practice the fundamentals before progressing to the challenging exercise.

The most important thing to take away from this post, is stay injury free! You can’t be making progress on your goals if you are injured. Slow down, think form, and….results!


Josh Saunders, BSc, CSCS